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“What Did I Get Myself Into?”

To avoid cutting staff, the obvious solution is asking teachers to teach outside their areas of expertise. Has this happened to you?As more and more Lutheran schools struggle with declining enrollment, they are having to make tough choices. One of the biggest struggles is how to provide quality Christian education for all students, while balancing a tight budget. Principals must determine how to provide qualified teachers for each class and subject. Are you worried that it might happen to you? Well, it happened to me this year, and here are some insights as to how to handle this.

Due to retirements at the end of last year, our faculty knew our staffing would change. Our longtime middle school math and science teacher was retiring, and a full-time teacher who taught various English and math classes wanted to become a part-time teacher. We replaced the full-time science/math person, and we covered some math classes with the part-time person, but we needed someone to staff the eighth-grade on-level math class. As the person who creates the schedule for our middle school, I soon realized that I had space for that class in my teaching load, but I wasn’t sure I should do it. I hadn’t taught math in 27 years. In fact, my degrees specialize in language arts, study skills, and gifted education. However, as the eighth-grade homeroom teacher, it made sense for me to see some of my students for another class. With the wise words of my pastor ringing in my ears, “We don’t call a math or English teacher, we call teachers who teach Christ crucified, who teach God’s love for us, and who can teach any subject.” I decided to teach the class.

I was thankful to have time over the summer to review the book and subject material. This was important because math was my weakest subject in school. I talked to my principal about how she wanted me to set up the course and had her advise me on what she wanted me to do. I pulled out our school curriculum guide and read it. I also had time to talk to our new teacher about methods he uses and to look at apps and websites he recommended.

Next, I got to work doing what I know best. I took the information from my principal, colleague, school curriculum guide, and text and started designing my year. I use Backwards Design for all my classes. I knew I needed to apply it here as well. I created my goals based on where the students needed to be at the end of year. Then I created an index of the essential knowledge, skills, and concepts my students needed to learn. While I didn’t create my assessments right away, I did begin to create my lessons to move my students to skill acquisition. I wish I could say I had time to plan and write lessons for the whole year, but that wasn’t a realistic goal. I did manage to create my first quarter though.

I discovered I had to get to know my students in a different way. I was not totally prepared for the wide variety of skill levels among my students.School started and with all of my planning, I wish I could say the first few weeks were a breeze—that my template on what to do when confronted with teaching outside my area of expertise was perfect, but it wasn’t. I discovered I had to get to know my students in a different way. I was not totally prepared for the wide variety of skill levels among my students. In teaching language arts for so many years, I knew what our students had been taught, how it had been taught, which concepts were easy for middle schoolers, and what took time for them to understand. In preparing for math, I had asked about what I could expect from the students and who struggled; however, I had not thought about looking at the previous level’s texts and seeing when concepts had been taught, how it had been taught, and how that might impact their knowledge.

It took a few weeks to get into a groove with my students. Due to my specializing in study skills, I have always color coded the information in my classes, and my lessons always clearly state what will be taught for the day. The students soon saw that the organization of my language arts classes carried over to math class. This helped tremendously because they knew what to expect; however, I wasn’t teaching the same way as their previous teacher. My vocabulary wasn’t always the same, and I taught “differently” (my methods weren’t the same). For some that was good, but for others there were tears. I had to spend one-on-one time with those who struggled with my methods and ask what they missed about seventh grade math. Then I had to decide which parts I could incorporate into my teaching. After a two-week adjustment period, I knew my students’ math skill level and their comfort level; they knew what to expect from me when it came to teaching style, and class was much smoother.

I have seen the light bulb “go on” quite a bit this year in math, which is exciting for me. And to be honest, the light bulb has gone on for me, as well, as to the best way for me to teach this class.As the year has progressed, I have been grateful for the fact that I did not plan more than one quarter of lessons. I have spent almost every Sunday afternoon and Tuesday planning period reviewing my lessons for the next few days, deciding what to keep and what to change, based on what I now know about my students. Also, remember that an integral part of Backward Design is creating formal assessments before making the lessons. I chose not to do that, and I’m thankful I didn’t. Just as with any subject matter, different formal assessments can be utilized at various times, and I am learning which formal assessments work for me in my various math units. Making them in advance would have been a waste of time. I have also learned how important it is to constantly “quiz” my students to make sure they understand what is happening as I teach my lesson, which is different than what I do in language arts. I have seen the light bulb “go on” quite a bit this year in math, which is exciting for me. And to be honest, the light bulb has gone on for me, as well, as to the best way for me to teach this class.

The real question though is “Would I be willing to teach outside my area of expertise again?” The answer is “In a heartbeat.” Many lessons beyond math are being taught. Students see the collaboration that has come from my working with the math/science teacher as he gives me ideas on how to teach this “new to me” subject. They see me tackling the challenge of a new course and how I must work hard to prepare, just as they must work hard as students. They know I am stepping out of my comfort zone, which enables me to discuss with them how to step outside their comfort zones. Most importantly though, they see me using the talents God has given me as I try something new. What better lesson could I be teaching my students?

Denise Rice teaches junior high students at St. Paul’s in Des Peres, Mo.

Photos © iStock/Imgorthand, HalfPoint, Reshkov